Smokehead Islay Single Malt Scotch

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Mwaah Ha Ha Haa…

What was that, you ask? Not to worry, it’s just a peat monster looking to grab the back of your throat and assault your tastebuds. Well, actually, it’s just Smokehead Islay Single Malt, a no age statement Islay whisky that’s been branded to appeal to the bad ass in us all… although it may or may not still do some damage to your tastebuds!

Now, I appreciate tattoos and rock & roll as much as the next guy but I must admit that, when a buddy brought this over for a barbecue, I was a little bit skeptical – it’s just such a massive departure from typical Scotch marketing! Funky branding, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t a good drop inside the bottle and it was a big hit with all the boys (a couple of whom are not regular whisky drinkers) so, needless to say, I’ve felt the need to give Smokehead a proper review.

This whiskey is brought to us by Ian Macleod distillers. There is much mystery surrounding Smokehead and plenty of debate about the distillery from which this single malt originates. I have read that it’s a young Ardbeg, some say it’s a baby Lagavulin. I guess if they were to tell you they’d have to… never mind, it’s just that damned devilish skull causing these dark thoughts!

Smokehead costs about $60 in my neck of the woods. It’s bottled at 43% abv.

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To the Eye

Smokehead is a very pale, straw-coloured dram. The usual tilt of my glencairn produced medium legs that rapidly slip back down the sides of the glass.

In the Nose

A lot of the typical Islay elements are there. Iodine, check. Peat, you bet. Seaweed… perhaps. Smoke… sure – but frankly I was expecting a stronger blast of soot in a dram named Smokehead. There is also some sweet honey along with hints of vanilla and cinnamon. This whisky has a very pleasant nose – it’s certainly a strength!

On the Tongue

No question that we have an Islay here and on the palate is where the smoke REALLY asserts itself. Charcoal is definitely at the forefront and its accompanied by a healthy dose of peat, offset a little bit by a fruity, pithy sweetness. Cigar ash, espresso, and a hint of dark chocolate also merge with a salty, seaweedy character. The finish is long and rather bitter, with more charcoal and burnt sugar… Perhaps a hint of sherry lingers as well.

Final Thoughts

Smokehead is an authentic Islay malt that has most of the qualities one expects from the island. What I did not find in this dram, however, was the wonderful balance usually associated with Islay malts. But I suppose that’s to be expected. After all, whichever distillery Smokehead comes from, they would have kept the casks for themselves if they had been among their best, wouldn’t they?

It’s not that Smokehead is a horrible drop but, in my opinion, there’s just a bit too much tinder box and ash tray in this dram that’s knocking the experience out of balance. Unfortunately, the cool factor of the canister doesn’t make up for the slight lack of quality inside the bottle. Thank you very much but, when my palate wants to visit Islay, I’ll go for the less expensive Laphroaig Quarter Cask or the similarly priced Ardbeg 10 every time!

Highland Park 12 Year Old

Well, I went with a bit of a hockey analogy back when I reviewed the Highland Park 10 Year Old, so what the heck.


Let’s call HP 12 the Ron Francis of whisky… I’ll explain later.

 The Highland Park distillery is situated in the Orkney Islands and, although technically a Highland malt, it is sometimes classified as a “West Coast” or “Island” whisky.  Personally, I like this specific terminology since, in my opinion, it acknowledges a unique character within these malts, which include examples such as Highland Park, Jura and Talisker. These whiskies are rather unique, often sharing nearly as much in common with Islay whiskies as they do with mainland Highland drams. Think of slightly tamer versions of Islay – still robust, peaty and smoky but more subdued so that other characteristics can also share a bit more of the stage.

Anyone who has read my review of the Hp 10 already knows that I’m very fond of this 12 year old whisky. But, in fact, I think I just have a general appreciation for the Highland Park distillery, so let me just be upfront about that from the get-go. I remember that my first bottle of HP 12 was a gift from my wife several years ago when I was kind of graduating from novice to intermediate whisky connoisseur… This just might be the drop that cemented my love for single malts!  HP 12 is bottled at 43% abv and costs about $45 in my locale.

To the Eye

This dram is a deep golden honey in colour. I know Highland Park spends some time in ex-sherry casks but this dram is lighter in colour than many sherried whiskies. It’s appearance reminds me more of a Canadian whisky, although it appears to have more body. Tilting my Glencairn produces a thin oily sheen that quickly releases skinny legs that rapidly run down the glass.

In the Nose

Oh yeah! If you haven’t yet experienced the Highland Park nose, it is, in my opinion, about as good as it gets.  Every HP whiskey has that sweet, peaty, floral character although the 12 year old possesses a richness and balance that, in my opinion, surpasses any of the other expressions that I have so far tried.

Honey is upfront, more pronounced and clearly recognizable than any other dram I can think of while peat and heather also firmly assert themselves to create a wonderfully earthy, floral aroma.  Vanilla, oak and toffee are present as well, along with a wisp of smoke that threads itself throughout the nose and ties it all together. As I said, rich, balanced and complex!

On the Tongue

This dram is so well-balanced that I almost struggle to pick out individual flavours. It’s not at all a one-off profile, it’s just that the flavours work so well together and enhance each other that I find it difficult to think of them separately but I’ll give it a shot:

A peppery, oaky spiciness serves as the backbone that supports and carries the other flavours. Buttery toffee and honey are right at home in there along with a herbal anise/licorice and peat that, in combination, remind me of tarragon. Once again, there is a hint of gentle smoke weaving in and out, offering the suggestion of cigar tobacco and dark chocolate.  The finish is loooong, with oaky wood shavingings and pink peppercorns lingering along with that licorice flavour and just a hint of salt. Here is also where the influence of the sherry casks also finally asserts itself for me, leaving a mouthful of chewy raisins and cherries like wine gums candy. Complex and very, very delicious!

Final Thoughts

Ok, so I will try to avoid making a habit of personifying whiskies and relating them to hockey players from here on out. I can make excuses about being Canadian and all that but I know it’s terribly cheesy! However, I said at the top that I’d explain HP 12 as the Ron Francis of whisky, so here it is:

You probably need to be a hockey fan to really get my meaning here but I’m sure that, if you don’t know hockey, you can sub in another player from your sport of preference who was flat-out brilliant but missed out on the deserved amount of credit because the spotlight was often focused on flashier individuals. Ron Francis was that type of hockey player – a model of unbelievable consistency built on a foundation of tremendous but slightly-subtler skills than some of his better-known contemporaries. (For example, while Gretzky and Lemieux were stealing the spotlight, it was easy to forget that Francis scored 20+ goals 20 times, was better than a point per game 15 times and that he quietly accumulated the fifth-most point in NHL history!)

For me, that’s Highland Park 12… with more aged, pricier and uniquely casked whiskies running distractions, it can be easy to overlook how damned fantastic this drop really is!